When winter rears its ugly head, it's our job to make sure our kiddos stay warm and dry. And SAFE. But if you're like most parents, you’ve likely been left wondering “What can I do to keep my child warm and safe in the car seat in the winter?”
Barring a few exceptions (click here to view Winter Safety & Car Seats - a helpful guide to winter attire that passes the Pinch Test), winter coats and car seats don’t mix. Yes, coats and snowsuits can be our best friend when enjoying time in the fresh air, however they are unsafe when worn in a child restraint, or under a seat belt.
Consider this, in order for your child’s car seat to offer the maximum protection in a collision or crash the harness straps must be positioned so that the webbing lays flat and snug up against your child’s body, and not fitted to their attire. Tight harness = less movement, and ensures the even distribution of crash forces across the strongest parts of your child’s body.
When you add layers of clothing or bulk from thick bunting bags or other aftermarket products between your child and the car seat straps, you are unable to ensure a snug and properly fitted harness. Most winter coats and snowsuits retain dangerous amounts of air requiring you to loosen your child’s car seat harness in order to accommodate the uncompressed bulk. Over time, the bulk will compress under the weight of the harness and introduce slack between your child's body and the harness itself. In the event of a crash, the extreme forces will flatten out any remaining bulk resulting in the straps no longer being tight enough to keep your child safe, putting them at risk of injuries from excessive movement, or possible ejection from the seat.
Heavy gear can also prevent correct harness adjustment, interfere with proper chest clip placement, and alter your child’s head and body position within the seat. This will drastically and negatively affect the manner in which your child moves in the event of a crash.
Even the most seemingly minor changes are part of a specific architecture meant to keep your child safe in a crash.
So, what can you do to strike the balance between keeping your little one warm while also keeping him safe in his seat? For starters, dress your child in thin, tight, compressible layers. Generally speaking, aim to dress your child in 2-4 thin layers, weather dependent, and keep the top layer removable - just in case! Fleece is a great top layer that retains heat without adding bulk under the harness, and accessories such as hats and mittens help keep kids warm without interfering with the car seat straps. A word of caution: resist the urge to 'size up' as the extra fabric will bunch up under the harness and prevent you from obtaining a proper (snug) fit.
If the weather calls for it, a simple blanket over the harness tucked in and around them once they are secured in the seat and after properly tightening the harness straps will do the trick. Start with a thin receiving blanket and then add a heavier blanket over top, if need be. As a note, remove the heavier blanket as your vehicle warms up to prevent your child from overheating.
If you’re looking for a little something extra, you might be considering adding an Infant Car Seat Cover, a Multi-Function Cover - or even a Bunting Bag to the mix. What you might not know is that many of these ‘extras’ fall into a category known as aftermarket or non-regulated products which includes items ranging from bunting bags and harness pads to infant inserts for rear facing child restraints. Walk into any baby gear retailer and you’ll be inundated with accessories claiming to have been crash tested and approved for use with your car seat. However, while these products are marketed as such, there are no safety standards to which these unregulated products need to conform, either in crash tests or otherwise. This is what makes them ‘unregulated’ and why manufacturers expressly prohibit the use of aftermarket (non-regulated) products. The bottom line is that anything you add to your seat outside of what was supplied in the box or approved by the manufacturer could alter the way it performs.
One example of this is Bunting Bags. Bunting bags are the type of cover that most closely resembles a sleeping bag: the kind that have a layer that sits behind your child and one on top, like a sleeping bag. These covers add a layer of bulky padding between the back of your child and the car seat harness. This padding will suddenly compress in the force of a crash creating up to 4"+ of slack in the straps, making the straps too loose and putting your child at risk. Besides posing a safety risk, bunting bags can be a suffocation hazard from the fabric covering your child’s nose and/or mouth. Bottom line: these are NOT safe.
When it comes to Car Seat Canopies or Multi-Function Infant Car Seat Covers, they too are unregulated and not recommended. The biggest risk associated with each of these stems from the act of covering your child’s face. Doing so makes it impossible to monitor your child’s breathing or pick up on visual cues, in addition to cutting off his access to fresh air flow which can lead to re-breathing, overheating and suffocation. Re-breathing occurs when a baby breathes in trapped or previously exhaled air. Doing so causes the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the body to rise while the oxygen (O2) levels drop. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents to “leave baby's face uncovered to avoid trapped air and re-breathing.” While it’s important to keep your little one warm, it’s equally important that he doesn’t overheat.
From a vehicle safety perspective, neither the Car Seat Canopy nor the Multi-Function Car Seat Cover can be used in your vehicle (car seat manufacturers prohibit anything from being attached to the seat’s carry handle or shell), and they must be removed every single time.
Although often overlooked, it’s paramount to highlight that the same risks are associated with covering a seat with a blanket. It might not appear to be trapping air and recirculated CO2 however it does, and it will. It fails to allow for proper air ventilation.
There are a few aftermarket products that can be used safely, including certain car seat covers. Shower cap style covers fit over and on top of your infant seat, and do not have a layer of material that lies between your child’s body and the harness. Better yet, no part of the harness needs to be routed through the product. They feature an elastic cuff which secures them around the shell of the seat. Some styles have a peek-a-boo flap that covers or lifts up to expose your baby’s face. If you’re considering a shower cap style cover, opt for one without the built-in flap and if you end up with the flap, please always keep the flap open and baby’s face exposed. Doing so will ensure that your child doesn’t overheat, has access to that much-needed fresh flow of oxygen and it will allow you to conduct frequent wellness checks! A quick trick to determining whether your cover is safe to use is to ensure that it checks ALL of the following boxes:
No part of the harness (shoulder straps and/or crotch buckle) needs to be routed through the product
No bulky layer that sits between the back of your child and the seat or harness
Baby is 'visible and kissable' (face exposed) at ALL TIMES
Similar to other styles of covers, shower cap style covers cannot be used in your vehicle and must be removed every single time to ensure that the carrier portion of the seat locks securely into the base.
When it comes to safe winter options for infant seats, there are some great items available that will help to keep your kiddo WARM and SAFE. What’s most important is to select an item that follows the manufacturer’s recommendations, does not interfere with the placement of the harness on your baby and does not prevent the flow of fresh oxygen for your little one. If it's absolutely necessary to protect your child from extreme weather by covering him for a fleeting moment, please only do so while keeping an eye on baby and be sure to uncover him immediately - anything longer puts him at risk.